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Cuban Hijackers to Face Piracy Charges - 2003-03-20


U.S. authorities say six Cubans who hijacked an airliner to Florida late Wednesday face air piracy charges.

Federal officials say the knife-wielding hijackers surrendered peacefully after the DC-3 propeller plane landed safely at the airport on Florida's resort island of Key West.

Earlier, the hijackers took control of the aircraft, which departed from Cuba's Isle of Youth, and diverted it from a scheduled landing in Havana. Thirty-five people were on board.

None of the passengers or crew were injured

During the flight, Cuban air traffic controllers notified their U.S. counterparts of the hijacking. American military aircraft intercepted the plane over the Florida Straits and escorted it to Key West. The incident occurred amid heightened domestic security measures in the United States implemented in advance of war with Iraq.

U.S. policy dictates that the vast majority of Cubans who reach U.S. soil may remain and eventually apply for residency. But U.S. officials indicate that many of the passengers and crew from the hijacked plane have expressed a desire to return to Cuba.

Those charged in connection with the hijacking face long-prison sentences if convicted.

Dramatic escape attempts from Cuba are far from uncommon. Late last year, Cuban asylum-seekers flew a crop dusting plane to Florida. More recently, Cuban Coast Guard officers fled the island aboard a patrol boat and arrived in Key West without detection.